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Live to work: A broken system populated by broken cogs.

The Matrix came out at the turn of the millennium, and it was groundbreaking. The concept of humans living in an alternate reality so that machines can control them may have possibly inspired some of the beliefs we live in a simulation. I thought the movie was brilliant, but it wasn’t the supermarket philosophy or the great action scenes. What I found amazing was the concept of a world built to turn humans into batteries because I look at a world assaulted by hustle culture, 9-6-6 work life and other such absurdities. At the same time, everyday people run blood-soaked fingers over ever-diminishing coins as they try to rub out a life in what some say is the best time to be human.

Colonized by language

Language is the most insipid coloniser because it doesn’t take over your body; instead, it goes for a much more vulnerable organ. Words slip into language; before we consent or even know it, we repeat words we don’t believe in. The idea of having a job has slipped into every crevasse of our consciousness. Think of how ubiquitous the word job is in our daily lives. On the other end of the spectrum, words like passion and zeal are frowned upon for being too dirty or nerdy or whatever negative connotation you can think of.

There has got to be more to life than work. Were we merely created so we could work our most powerful years only to retire when the zeal has been leeched out of our bones? We are told to sacrifice and build for our futures, but in the same breath: “Tomorrow never comes.” So why do we do it? Why spend an insurmountable number of hours in a job you hate, looking forward to a day that may never come?

I met a young, bright American, Paul, the other day. We spent hours talking about how much he absolutely hated his life because all he did was work, which had led him to play hopscotch with the line between sanity and a mental breakdown. I flippantly told him to get a hobby and direct some of his energy in that direction. He said he had but that most hobbies cost money, so if he indulged in a gym membership, he would feel guilty for the money he was wasting on himself and for not being at work. “If you aren’t working, what are you even doing with your life?”

Are we a society of amputated hopes?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not calling for a global strike or walkout. One of the most challenging realisations as an adult is finding out you sometimes have to do things you don’t want to. So, I ask, why have we as a species allowed ourselves to live in a society of amputated hopes, dreams, and souls bandaged up with clocking-in cards and corporate IOUs from bosses who will replace you as soon as you quit? What is this machine in which we have consented to being cogs?

I dream of a time when people can truly follow their dreams past buying the latest car or cellphone. There has to be a better option than being handcuffed to your work desk lest you suddenly get gastric ulcers and need to pay for medical care. I say this at a time when South Africa is suffering from some of the worst unemployment in the world. Some might say millions of people would kill for a job they could die in. There are many reasons for an unemployment rate to be so high it would be paying off a mortgage if it were human. I believe the main reason is education and education about one’s choices. So many young South Africans are looking to get rich but have not been educated on how to build a life that will draw wealth and health to their side.

Actionable steps

Instead, they are given nebulous contradictory concepts such as work-life balance and hustle till you make it. An equally ambiguous menace is: Find something you love to do, and you will never have to work a day in your life. How are these actionable steps for one to take to improve one’s life? Furthermore, how many people knew at 18 what they wanted to do with their life? And yet we have peach-fuzzed teenagers making decisions about the rest of their lives while barely able to act like decent human beings.

So, I am going to try to give three pieces of actionable advice for people unhappy with their life or work:

  1. Take time from working to be silent and examine yourself and your passions. In silence, our souls speak.
  2. You aren’t a tree; if you are unhappy, leave. However, don’t just quit your job without preparing for what comes next; we still live in the Matrix. So, study and upskill until you can leave the situation that brings tears to your eyes when you are alone.
  3. Just start, no matter how small a step it is. It doesn’t matter as long as it is a step toward who you want to be.

I understand that we work because we have to pay bills, but I am stalked by the nightmare of being on my deathbed and trying to account for a life, body, and health spent improving someone else’s bottom line.

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Nyameko Ishmael Bottoman is a South African author and teacher. After graduating from the University of the Western Cape, he moved to South Korea and subsequently other parts of Asia. This was where he reignited his love for the written word. He helped develop the first South African online magazine in the role of editor.  He has published two books, a children's book and book on South African Folklore

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